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Construction wiping out state's koala population

Conservationists in Queensland are urging the Australian government to declare the state's koalas "critically endangered".

Koalas rest in a tree in a reserve: conservationists say 25,000 have died out in south-east Queensland.
Koalas rest in a tree in a reserve: conservationists say 25,000 have died out in south-east Queensland.

BRISBANE // Conservationists in Queensland are urging the Australian government to declare the state's koalas "critically endangered" to give them more legal protection as a loss of habitat pushes them closer to extinction. It is estimated that over the past decade 25,000 of these tree-dwelling marsupials have died in the south-east region of the state, leaving a dispersed group of just 4,000 that faces mounting threats from a destructive combination of rapid urban development and disease. "The koala is an icon," said Deborah Tabart, the head of the Australian Koala Foundation, who has campaigned tirelessly on behalf of Australia's cuddly national symbol for 20 years. "It is part of our nationhood. "We know for a fact that the population in south-east Queensland is critically endangered and the rest of the country needs to be listed as vulnerable." Ms Tabart has been demanding tougher laws to protect the forests and woodlands where koalas live. Parts of south-east Queensland, including the state capital, Brisbane, and the Gold Coast, are Australia's fastest growing regions, where thousands of new residents pour in each year, besieging koalas. Their habitat is fast disappearing under the bricks and tarmac of new buildings and roads. Peter Timms, a professor of microbiology at Queensland University of Technology, said he believes that more must be done to safeguard the future of one of Australia's favourite creatures. "The environment really is a delicate balance and sometimes we don't realise how individual animals are affected. Koalas feed on eucalyptus and people might not think much of that, but there is always this balance between all different animals and plant species. I think we'd find that if we took one of them away, such as the koalas, it might have an impact," Prof Timms said. "Plus they are nice to look at and we wouldn't want to lose them because we'd been too busy wanting to make new housing estates." The pace of construction on the Gold Coast south of Brisbane has been dizzying in recent years as the building industry cashes in on seemingly insatiable demand for residential and holiday apartments, but the developers' heavy concrete footprint is crushing the habitat of local wildlife. Efforts are being made, however, to save koalas threatened by the new suburbs. After commissioning a study into the effect of major building work in Coomera near Surfers Paradise, officials are devising a koala rescue plan worth AU$17.8 million (Dh44.5m) and which involves capturing and relocating up to 100 of the thick-furred marsupials to special reserves. "It is not possible to stop a lot of the habitat clearance," said John Callaghan, the koala conservation manager at the Gold Coast City Council. "We're talking about an area that will be intensively developed with residential areas and a new town centre, which is not conducive to allowing koalas to survive in the area. There'll be lots of new threats from cars and dogs as well as the loss of habitat." Moving koalas to new homes has taken place in other parts of Australia for decades, most notably in Victoria and South Australia, but it is untried further north. "This is completely new anywhere in Queensland, but we know it can be done successfully," Mr Callaghan said. "However we do understand that it needs to be done very carefully. Each of these animals will be radio-collared and tracked fairly intensively over the course of the next two to three years." Nationally, it is estimated there are 100,000 koalas in Australia, where they have in the past been hunted for their fur in vast numbers. While some environmentalists argue that the species is either critically endangered or vulnerable, other experts are not so sure. Hugh Possingham, a professor of mathematics and ecology at the University of Queensland, said in some parts of the continent the pouched mammals were thriving. "The populations are highly variable across the country. In some cases we know that in South Australia and Victoria they are expanding rapidly and in some cases are causing problems," he said. "The state governments have spent large amounts of money sterilising and moving them. We know they have disappeared almost entirely from large areas of New South Wales where there were once huge numbers and in south-east Queensland they are in rapid decline." The bacterial disease chlamydia is also putting strain on koalas. Scientists, who are working on a vaccine, say it is a "silent killer" because it damages the animal's ability to reproduce. "In a healthy individual it [chlamydia] can exist fairly OK, but sometimes it will flare up and cause blindness and urinary tract infections," Prof Timms said. "What happens when you stress the animals, you destroy some of their habitat, move them around and build roads through their forest, the stress levels then cause what's otherwise a moderate chlamydia level to be much higher and the two combined pose a very serious threat to the koalas." The Australian government's Threatened Species Scientific Committee is deciding whether these much-loved arboreal herbivores should be listed under national environment legislation. pmercer@thenational.ae